The Image of Hackers
“A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. ” (Hess) Year after year, more and more people get into hacking and the hacking revolution is becoming more of a thing as time passes by. But how does the public really see these “enthusiasts” of computer technology? And despite of how they are seen by the public, are they actually criminals, heroes or just average everyday people with a certain passion?
Hackers are actually a “need” for cyber security (Paganini) since they are what everyone needs nowadays to protect even the smallest of networks from intruders. Hackers may begin as programming enthusiasts but eventually end up becoming somewhat really useful for anyone, especially companies that are interested in protecting themselves and their information. Hackers can also be criminals though and that is why people have a hard time “trusting” a hacker and the word has been directly linked to a negative meaning. The neutrality of “hacking” is long gone and the technological revolution only makes it worse since people are becoming afraid of information not being safe.
The truth is, information is never safe. Cyber security expert, Keren Elazari, gave a Ted Talks speech regarding the image of hackers and how they actually shape the future of information and internet access for everyone in an ever technologically progressing world. She addresses various facts around hackers and how it lead to the point where they are portrayed by the world in the way they are portrayed and in addition how that “hurts” the hacking community. The main question that comes from these points though is how should those people be portrayed and why.
Hackers feel the need to “break” or exploit things they see on screen and because of the compulsive behavior, hackers have slowly made a negative image of themselves. Despite the fact that lots of hackers work as cyber security experts assisting companies with their security protocols, the fact that they still have that much power in their hands scares almost everyone. What power you may ask, the power of information access of course. The power to access almost anything at any time is a power that is by far one of the most important forces in the world at this point in time.
Being able to control and even shape information has never had so much value before and even if you are not holding any necessarily vital information, even personal information is scary when you feel the fear of the possibility of being exploited and found. The choices a hacker makes can have an effect on many things as well as the outcome of many events going on or about to happen. It thus makes sense for such power to be feared by pretty much anyone. It has even been said that hackers can go to the extent of even shutting down entire country power grids (Smith).
What is it that stirs this urge to “break” things though, and why can it not be just a force of good? Hackers have through various activities proven to be a force driven by either good or bad will. It is due to ill-purposed hackers of course that the public has the false perception mostly that they are all criminals. Condemning an entire group of people that practice hacking though just because others are criminals is generalising and that can never lead to good. The urge though of making easy money though never leads to good either since most of these hackers have been found and brought to justice. There are examples of course of uncaught hackers and others that have messed with public services and gone away from justice.
Keren states though, through her Ted Talks speech, that despite all the bad rumours and behaviours we’ve seen from hackers in the past, they are still really important to the information age (Elazari). Hackers are but a few of the most important aspects the general public still has in its possession to defend itself against propaganda and freedom limitations. Governments aren’t always all angelic and good so the people will always need a fighting force to keep things in a balance, hackers are one of these forces and have proven to be useful time and again in the past several times. Even though there are tons of hacker criminals out there, there are also a lot of hacker heroes that never rest until justice is served. This can lead to other questions though, questions like who says a certain hacker or hacker party is the one to judge if justice should be served regarding certain situations.
For this reason, in most cases we see hacker parties and not just one person acting alone. Lots of times in the past it has been seen that sooner or later a certain hacker group will take control instead of just a couple of people. The hacker groups have contributed to creating a whole hacking culture as well (Abelon). “One of the most exciting trends of the early 21st century has been the explosion of hacker culture around the world.”
The author continues to explain “By hackers, I don’t mean people who pose security threats to computer networks. I’m referring simply to people who use technology to create useful products.” So we can see that people who write informational articles around hackers try to keep a neutral image towards hackers and not assign blame through false accusations and wrong use of language. The hacker culture is something that is constantly expanding and becoming more and more common due to the fact that technology is advancing really fast and allows more people than ever before to have easy access to it. That could either be because there is a better ease of access for almost everyone as years go by due to prices in technology dropping or because it is somewhat becoming a necessity due to everyday tasks that have to be done through technological means.
But what about the experts? There are of course those that don’t just hack for fun or have it as a hobby, but those that do hacking for a living, the security experts. There have been lots of hacking contests in the past with companies saying “we will pay this amount of money for anyone that breaks our security software” but there are also companies coming out asking for a security expert to assist them with protecting their network and businesses.
“More and more organisations are being targeted in cyber-attacks, and they must get to know their enemy if they are to protect vital networks. Meet the professional, ethical hacker.” (Bodhani) The ethical hacker is what basically works towards not just protecting companies, but generally information. These people usually work on call and are asked to “attack” a certain website or company in order to test the security protocols. There are even cases that IT workers at those companies are notified in order to prepare for those “attacks”. But still, despite ethical hackers doing a legitimate and useful for the public job, what about the other “free spirits” that are not really controlled by anyone and work on their own without anyone limiting their reach and access?
Through an interview with Bruce Schneier (pbs.org), it was discussed if hackers could be considered watchdogs or outlaws. Bruce mentions that the internet will never be safe despite it’s continuously growing complexity but the society shouldn’t leave in fear since it’s still a place of high anonymity. He does mention though that despite the fact that there are lots of good hackers that build tools to break into systems for testing purposes but those tools eventually fall into the wrong hands and cause insecurity. “So there’s a balance.”
We should take a moment though and consider, are hackers really necessary? Other than creating security protocols, what else are they good for? Shouldn’t they be contained more effectively by society? Not really. Hackers are not just security experts, they are code experts in general. They are the ones that make most software and update it so that the public can have ease of use. They are the ones that basically helped with the making of your personal computer. More than anything though, they are really good vocal critics. It is a controversial thing to thank a hacker but they are the ones that will stand up against in any argument regarding recent technological advancements and critic it heavily (technopedia.com).
Black hat hackers will always be somewhat frightening but there are so many others out there that are working for the good of the people that people really need to start getting more informed and changing their opinion and perception of the general group that we call hackers nowadays. Keren Elazari stated in her speech that we should start seeing hackers more as heroes than we do as villains since they do deserve credit for many things that have gone well thus far and in addition to that, they are still people, and for any new person that decides to give in to his passion for hacking and invest time in learning how to do it, it’s an additional psychological pressure to consider. Imagine if you had football as a hobby and everyone saw you as a villain for practicing that hobby, that doesn’t sound nice, does it?
“Hacking is a very important skill set in our society, because these are the experts in how the systems work and how the systems fail. The people who use that expertise for bad are bad people. People who use that expertise for good are good people,” said Robert Steele, CEO of Open Source Solution in an interview on PBS.org (Steele). Steele continues to note two really important changes since the coming of hackers. One, that the hacker community is getting organized and that people are recognizing it something that is more than just a mere “hobby”. Two, that there have been changes in both the private sector and in the government since they still don’t understand hackers, most importantly they don’t understand the communications and computing environment as much as they should.
So should hackers be portrayed as heroes? Does the evidence of history sum up to the point that we can call them “heroes” instead of “villains”? Surely calling someone a villain is maybe too much and can be a wrong conclusion, but are they worthy of being called heroes? Many strive to explore this question and what answers could be given to it, but it is still unclear whether we can give a more righteous title to the group of people following this particular culture (gizmodo.com). All we can do is just keep exploring the evolution of the hacking culture and the progression of the information age as time passes.
With the passing of time, the fog around the once mysterious hackers, their motives as well as their goals will be gone and it will be more clear to the public as to what purpose they serve. Surely it can just be called a passion or an impulsiveness to do “play around” with programming, but when you hold such power, anything can go the wrong way in no time. Should hackers be more closely monitored and prohibited from making certain actions? Should governments be more strict with them? Those are questions that we just cannot answer yet since there is so much controversy around the subject that it’s hard to believe either side yet.
With situations like Anonymous having made questionable actions in the past but also having helped the public too, it’s hard to make out a clear image for hacker groups and thus hackers themselves. One thing is for sure though, we cannot condemn a whole group of people that have a passion to being called criminals and treated as such in every occasion. We are living in the age of information and with information we should know better than to make anyone with a passion for something suffer from the pressure of being condemned by society itself.
-Constantine “Kelfecil” Christakis
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